Using a radioimmunoassay (RIA) with high specificity and sensitivity (1 pg/tube) for acetylcholine (ACh), we have been able to measure the ACh content in samples from the bacteria, archaea and eucarya domains of the universal phylogenetic tree. We found detectable levels of ACh to be ubiquitous in bacteria (e.g., Bacillus subtilis), archaea (e.g., Thermococcus kodakaraensis KOD1), fungi (e.g., shiitake mushroom and yeast), plants (e.g., bamboo shoot and fern) and animals (e.g., bloodworm and lugworm). The levels varied considerably, however, with the highest ACh content detected in the top portion of bamboo shoot (2.9 μmol/g), which contained about 80 times that found in rat brain. In addition, using the method of Fonnum, various levels of ACh-synthesizing activity also were detected, a fraction of which was catalyzed by a choline acetyltransferase (ChAT)-like enzyme (sensitive to bromoACh, a selective ChAT inhibitor) in T. kodakaraensis KOD1 (15%), bamboo shoot (91%) and shiitake mushroom (51%), bloodworm (91%) and lugworm (81%). Taken together, these findings demonstrate the ubiquitous expression of ACh and ACh-synthesizing activity among life forms without nervous systems, and support the notion that ACh has been expressed and may be active as a local mediator and modulator of physiological functions since the early beginning of life.
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